Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Book Review: 1984, by George Orwell (1949)

1984 presents a chilling vision of a future where an oppressive, totalitarian regime not only controls the actions of its citizens, the ruling Party also controls individual thought and ruthlessly subjugates its citizens for the sole purpose of keeping itself in power for eternity.

Writing in 1948, George Orwell used communist China and the USSR as his starting point, and imagined the extreme limits of the concept: if everyone is already working for the ruling Party, what else can the Party do to extend its influence? He found the answer in the concept of a regime that controls its people not only economically, but also literally controls intellect and emotions. Every aspect of society and culture, including language, history, pro-creation, literature and war, are all manufactured and manipulated for the purpose of consolidating and expanding the power of the Party.

Winston Smith is a citizen of Oceania, one of three remaining continental powers on earth. Smith is a member of the Outer Party, and works in the Ministry of Truth, fabricating history. Smith's misfortune is that his mind is not totally under the control of the Party, and he questions the deteriorating condition of humanity as the Party grows in power. His wandering mind leads him to acts of rebellion, all punishable by death, such as keeping a diary, having an illicit affair with a co-worker, and seeking out the Brotherhood, a fabled resistance movement that may or may not be real.

But 1984 is not a story of heroics, and Smith knows early on that he is doomed. The final third of the book deals with his capture and re-education by the Party.

Orwell, who wrote the book while sick and died soon after completing it, delivers a gripping book in which, remarkably, not much actually happens. Most of the book is a description through Smith's eyes of the society around him, combined with the continuous narrative inside Smith's head as he struggles with his utter lack of acceptance of his miserable surroundings, while everyone else perceives everything to be perfectly normal.

There are only two other main characters in the book. Julia is the young co-worker who has an affair with Smith. While Smith's struggle with the Party is intellectual, Julia cares much less about society as a whole and is only striving to thrive under the radar. While Julia dominates the middle third of the book, the final third belongs to O'Brien, the Inner Party member who represents the voice of the regime, and who is tasked with bringing Smith back to "sanity".

1984 predicted various aspects of the future to a remarkable level of accuracy. Even modern-day democracies suffer from dramatically increased state-surveillance of citizens; lying politicians who contradict their own past promises; state sponsored propaganda or "spin" that has no purpose except to serve the party in power; and aspects of thought-police in the form of what we call political correctness.

The book also introduced timeless images and concepts: Big Brother is Watching You, the telescreen; doublethink; and Newspeak are some of the enduring influences. The book spawned the term Orwellian in reference to the worst instincts of governments to control citizens.

1984 is a book that is certainly gloomy and depressing, but at the same time, it serves as a lesson on the depths to which humanity can sink, and provides a source of comparative optimism given that most citizens of the world have so far avoided the worst that Orwell imagined.

311 pages plus Appendix.
Published in softcover by Penguin.

1984 at the Ace Black Store.
Ace Black Blog Book Review No. 24.

All Ace Black Blog Book Reviews are here.

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